The next few days are sacred.
Two of the most consequential battles of World War II were fought this week (Battle of Midway and D-Day), and each year, all around the world, military units honor them – and those who fought – with dinners, ceremonies and formal balls. The results of both battles changed the course of the war, and therefore the course of history. Losses in either would have been devastating for America, but we won both…through tenacity, daring tactics, and – as always – the valiant efforts by those who were there.
The Battle of Midway (June 4-7) was designed to be a Japanese offensive to occupy the island of Midway (and its airstrip), then lure America’s crippled carrier fleet into the open and crush it. After the Battle of Coral Sea a month earlier, the U.S. only had two fully-capable carriers, USS ENTERPRISE (CV-6) and USS HORNET (CV-8) at its disposal to defend Midway. USS YORKTOWN (CV-5) was also afloat, but had just limped back to Pearl Harbor to repair damage suffered at Coral Sea. Japan showed up with four fully-capable carriers and a massive invasion fleet.
We were supposed to lose.
But the cumulative effect of thousands of individual efforts won the day. Shipyard workers repaired YORKTOWN in time to participate in the battle. Cryptologists had broken the Japanese code and knew where they were headed, and the U.S. fleet was waiting when they got there. Countless acts of heroism were witnessed throughout the battle itself.
The few Army Air Corps and Marine aircraft on Midway began the attack against overwhelming odds, suffering heavy losses. The Japanese, who had already begun their attack on Midway, were then surprised when carrier-based torpedo planes attacked – they weren’t supposed to be there. The TBDs were slow and easy targets for the Japanese fighters – three squadrons went in, and only 4 of 41 planes returned – but because the torpedo planes flew low, they drew the Japanese fighters down too, and the higher-flying American bombers got in. An outstanding description of what followed can be found here.
When it was all over, the Japanese had lost all four carriers, one light cruiser and thousands of men. The U.S. lost one carrier (YORKTOWN), one destroyer (USS Hammann (DD-412)), and 307 men.
Japan had reached its high-water mark of the war. The war would continue for three more years, and would cost many, many more lives. But the tide turned at Midway. What turned the tide was the heroism of those who fought.
Coming on Wednesday: D-Day